One big mystery remains unsolved: Why was the Capitol left unguarded?

The Capitol Police have more than 2,000 officers and a $500 million budget. Who prevented them from stopping this?

Published January 15, 2021 6:00AM (EST)

Trump supporters clash with police and security forces as they storm the US Capitol in Washington, DC on January 6, 2021. - Demonstrators breeched security and entered the Capitol as Congress debated the a 2020 presidential election Electoral Vote Certification. (ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP via Getty Images)
Trump supporters clash with police and security forces as they storm the US Capitol in Washington, DC on January 6, 2021. - Demonstrators breeched security and entered the Capitol as Congress debated the a 2020 presidential election Electoral Vote Certification. (ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP via Getty Images)

This article was co-produced with Press Watch, an independent site that monitors and critiques American political coverage. Please consider supporting Press Watch by making a donation.

There is so much going on these days. But what I keep coming back to is that if the Capitol Police had been anything close to properly mobilized, none of it would have happened.

There would have been a protest on January 6, not an insurrection. Five people wouldn't be dead. Members of Congress and Capitol staff wouldn't have been terrorized. Donald Trump wouldn't be impeached.

All but for a still inexplicable decision made by who-knows-who.

Because we still don't know how it was allowed to happen.

The other failures after the mob broke through the shoddy Capitol Police lines are hugely significant — including the long delay in help from federal law enforcement and the National Guard. But the Capitol Police, with its 2,100 sworn officers and staggering half-billion-dollar budget, could easily have contained the mob if it had actually tried.

That's a force bigger than the entire Atlanta Police Department, and with more than twice the budget. They could have defended the Capitol if they wanted to.

Reporting on this topic has been highly unsatisfactory. The only article I've seen that gets close to indicating the depths of that failure was by Colleen Long, Michael Balsamo and Lisa Mascaro of the Associated Press, who wrote on Monday:

Despite ample warnings about pro-Trump demonstrations in Washington, U.S. Capitol Police did not bolster staffing on Wednesday and made no preparations for the possibility that the planned protests could escalate into massive violent riots, according to several people briefed on law enforcement's response.


The department had the same number of officers in place as on a routine day. While some of those officers were outfitted with equipment for a protest, they were not staffed or equipped for a riot….

No fencing was erected outside the Capitol and no contingency plans were prepared in case the situation escalated, according to people briefed.

And officers were told not to shoot:

Once the mob began to move on the Capitol, a police lieutenant issued an order not to use deadly force, which explains why officers outside the building did not draw their weapons as the crowd closed in. Officers are sometimes ordered against escalating a situation by drawing their weapons if superiors believe doing so could lead to a stampede or a shootout.

It's dead wrong to call this an "intelligence failure." The FBI may not have felt it had enough evidence before Jan. 6 to arrest people, but it was common knowledge — amply supported by multiple, widely-shared intelligence reports — that Trump supporters would head to the Capitol after his rally, that those supporters expressed an intention to "stop" what Congress was doing, and that some of them had a history of violence.

It was a colossal policing failure. But why?

Speaks to motive

I have tried to consider the possibility that it was just gross incompetence. But no one could really be that incompetent.

So at this point, in the absence of any other plausible explanations, it is more than reasonable to assume that the people making decisions about Capitol Police deployment that day felt kinship with the Trump mob, and either were too racist to see the threat posed by Trump supporters or looked the other way on purpose.

We need to know which it was.

Although no one has come forth with first-hand knowledge, it is abundantly obvious — and has been, from the first few minutes of the siege — that the Capitol Police as a whole enjoyed a comfort level with this mob that they wouldn't have felt with any other — or, more specifically, with the "other."

As Masha Gessen wrote for the New Yorker, just a day later:

Black Lives Matter protesters are other to the Capitol Police. So are survivors of sexual assault or women who protest for the right to choose. But an armed mob storming the Capitol, and their Instigator-in-Chief, are, apparently, familiar enough to be dismissed as clowns.

As newly-elected Rep. Cori Bush, D-Mo. — a veteran of many Black Lives Matter protests — put it on MSNBC: "Had it been people who look like me, had it been the same amount of people, but had they been Black and brown, we wouldn't have made it up those steps. … We would have been shot, we would have been tear-gassed."

So did the Capitol Police leadership simply not believe that a group of white Trump supporters was capable of violence? Or did they think that even if they got inside the building, they wouldn't do any harm?

And most importantly: Was there any collusion? Did anyone suggest they look the other way?

Reporters should be trying to get hold of communications between Capitol Police leadership, including the House and Senate sergeants-at-arms, and any other party, in which Jan. 6 was mentioned.

Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund, who has since resigned, has said he held a video conference with the FBI to discuss security planning in the days before the siege. We deserve to know exactly what was said.

The FBI had a command center set up in its Washington field office before and during the siege. We know that FBI Deputy Director David Bowdich was there, among probably dozens of others from all over the government. What did they know and when did they know it? Did anyone there understand why the Capitol was left so unguarded? When did they realize it was a problem? When did they realize they had to do something about it? (Eventually, several hundred FBI, ATF and U.S. marshals were sent to the scene, as well as the National Guard.)

At any point, when decisions were made to underreact, were political appointees involved?

Reporters should ask every Capitol Police officer they can find: What did you think your orders were, and why? And what were communications like during the siege?

One of the few data points we have is from a BuzzFeed article by Emmanuel Felton, who interviewed two Black Capitol Police officers. One told him: "Our chief was nowhere to be found, I didn't hear him on the radio. One of our other deputy chiefs was not there. You don't think it's all hands on deck?"

The officers said that "upper management" had told them to prepare as they would for any other protest.

The officers, Felton wrote, "said they were wrong-footed, fighting off an invading force that their managers had downplayed and not prepared them for."

A huge error of judgment was made. But how high — and low — did it go?

Depends what you mean by "intelligence"

Official Washington has certainly not been making it easy for reporters to get answers to their questions, which is cause for suspicion all on its own.

Senior officials like FBI Director Chris Wray, and acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen appear to be in hiding. Rosen released what looked like a hostage video of himself at midnight Tuesday on YouTube, in which he mouthed platitudes.

To this day, the federal government has not held a single real briefing — by which I mean a briefing of any substance, with a chance for reporters to ask multiple questions and follow-ups.

The public face of the FBI is now Steven D'Antuono, who heads the Washington field office. He profoundly muddled the narrative last week when he told reporters that "there was no indication" of anything planned for Jan. 6 "other than First-Amendment protected activity."

That simply wasn't true. And in what the Justice Department attempted to pass off as a briefing on Tuesday, D'Antuono described plenty of what normal people would consider such indications — maybe not enough to arrest specific individuals, but more than enough to warn other agencies about what was coming.

And warn they did.

Here's what D'Antuono said:

The FBI receives enormous amounts of information and intelligence. And our job is to determine the credibility and viability of it under the laws and policies that govern FBI investigations. We have to separate the aspirational from the intentional and determine which of the individuals saying despicable things on the internet are just practicing keyboard bravado, or they actually have the intent to do harm. In the latter, we work diligently to identify them and prevent them from doing so. As offensive as a statement can be, the FBI cannot open an investigation without a threat of violence or alleged criminal activity.

However, when that language does turn to a call of violence or criminal activity, the FBI is able to undertake investigative action. And in this case, we had no indication information was linked to any specific person, but this is a matter of an online discussion. This information was immediately disseminated through a written product and briefed through our command post operations to all levels of law enforcement.

So even though it was raw and sometimes unspecific intelligence, they shared it. Everyone knew.

(Please note his use of the term "keyboard bravado." Apparently, when white guys discuss plans to attack the Capitol, that's not a terrorist threat, that's "keyboard bravado". When brown or Black people do it, the FBI goes into hysterics: Far too often, costly attempted stings, complete with entrapment by undercover informants, ensue.)

NBC's Pete Williams, to his great credit, started off the brief, no-follow-ups-allowed Q&A with exactly the right question:

So can you clarify for us, what intelligence did the FBI gather before the assault on the Capitol about the potential for violence, and how did it share it — and did it share it — to the Capitol Police?

D'Antuono dodged, saying generally that the FBI had received "a lot of intelligence and information" through social media and confidential informants, and that the information had been shared through the city's "very robust" joint terrorism task force, which of course includes the Capitol Police.

Reporters need to see that information.

A few days earlier, the acting U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, Michael Sherwin, had been a tad more forthcoming in an interview with NPR's Martin Kaste:

Q. I'm sure you have many sources of intel before an event like this. Did you get warnings about the possibility of violence?

A. Of course, there were warnings. I mean, look, you scrub social media, there is all types of intelligence indications. So, of course, there were warnings on social media, the different platforms, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and we were cognizant of those. There's always outliers but, yeah, there were warnings that people were going to coalesce and protest, and some individuals said, "Yeah, we're going to take back our house." So, yeah, those warnings were out there.

ProPublica's Sebastian Rotella reported that the FBI had actually acted on some of that intelligence:

FBI officials managed to dissuade people in several places from their suspected plans, a senior FBI official said — but there was not enough evidence to issue arrest warrants.

"Prior to this event, the FBI obtained information about individuals who were planning on potentially traveling to the protests, individuals who were planning to engage in violence," said the senior FBI official. "The FBI was able to discourage those individuals from traveling to D.C."

Rotella noted:

The FBI shared intelligence about potential threats with the Capitol Police, which has been part of the FBI-led Joint Terrorism Task Force in Washington since 1995. But for reasons that remain unclear, a much-criticized security deployment by the police was unable to prevent the storming of the Capitol on Wednesday.

So everybody with half a brain knew what might be coming. The only question is whether they cared.

Who made the call?

It seems like the only person in Capitol Police leadership who's been talking to reporters is the former chief, Steven Sund, who has given only two interviews, both to the Washington Post.

Although he is the single person most clearly responsible for what may be the most historic police failure in American history, he has accepted no blame, while using the Post to spread the blame to others.

In Sund's telling, for instance, it was the House and Senate sergeants-at-arms who blocked his attempt to request help from the National Guard. While that technically may have an element of truth to it, it certainly doesn't explain why Sund didn't even mobilize his own officers, choosing instead to leave them as sitting ducks behind tiny fences. He denied knowing about one particular FBI warning, but that means nothing.

House Sergeant-at-Arms Paul Irving, appointed by John Boehner in 2012, quickly resigned and hasn't been heard from since.

Michael Stenger, a former Secret Service agent whom Mitch McConnell installed as Senate sergeant-at-arms in 2018 (and who also resigned on Jan. 7) certainly comes off as a pathetic figure.

The Washington Post's Karoun Demirjian, Carol D. Leonnig, Paul Kane and Aaron C. Davis described a scene during the siege when "a large group of senators were secretly led to a room in a Senate office building. Stenger was with them, and the furious lawmakers peppered him with questions":

"How does this happen? How does this happen?" demanded Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.)

Stenger could not muster much of an answer, practically inaudible as he dispiritedly debriefed the senators. "He was talking in circles," Graham thought to himself.

Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., called Stenger's attempt to field that question "absolutely pathetic" and further reduced confidence in the room. As Graham pressed for a better explanation, Stenger's voice got weaker and smaller. …

Finally, the Senate sergeant at arms sat down amid the others in the room, saying to no one in particular: "I wish I had just retired last week."

We need much more reporting about what these and other top officials did and why.

Judgment must come

Although initial reports appropriately focused on the Capitol Police's incompetent — and, in some cases, downright affable — response to the mob, we've learned since that some officers behaved admirably.

Videos shows dozens of them trying to push back the invaders. One officer, Eugene Goodman, may have saved the lives of many senators by single-handedly blocking and then luring away from the Senate chamber a group of angry rioters.

If it weren't important enough already to know how this massive, historic failure took place — and what we can learn from it — distinguishing between the heroes, on one hand, and the cowards and appeasers, on the other, is essential journalism.

By Dan Froomkin

Dan Froomkin is Editor of Press Watch. He wrote the daily White House Watch column for the Washington Post during the George W. Bush administration, then served as Washington bureau chief and senior writer at Huffington Post, covering Barack Obama's presidency, before working as Washington editor at The Intercept.

MORE FROM Dan Froomkin

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Capitol Police Capitol Riots Commentary Editor's Picks Media Press Watch